Author: Paul Waldman
In politics there are some issues where liberals and conservatives share the same goal, but disagree about how to achieve it — we all want to have as little crime as possible, for instance, but there are different ideas about how to accomplish that. Then there are issues where the two groups have different goals — liberals want to preserve women’s reproductive rights, and conservatives don’t. And sometimes, there are issues we think fall in the first category, but actually belong in the second.
Health care may just be that kind of issue, where we talk as though we all have the same fundamental goals, but we actually don’t. There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today on a major success of the Affordable Care Act that demonstrates why we’ll never stop arguing about it. Here’s how it begins:
The first full year of the Affordable Care Act brought historic increases in coverage for low-wage workers and others who have long been left out of the health care system, a New York Times analysis has found. Immigrants of all backgrounds — including more than a million legal residents who are not citizens — had the sharpest rise in coverage rates.
Hispanics, a coveted group of voters this election year, accounted for nearly a third of the increase in adults with insurance. That was the single largest share of any racial or ethnic group, far greater than their 17 percent share of the population. Low-wage workers, who did not have enough clout in the labor market to demand insurance, saw sharp increases. Coverage rates jumped for cooks, dishwashers, waiters, as well as for hairdressers and cashiers. Minorities, who disproportionately worked in low-wage jobs, had large gains.
Before we go farther, we should remember that the ACA is a complex piece of legislation that affects every area of American health care, but for now we’re going to talk just about insurance coverage. When liberals see a report like this one, they say, that’s terrific — some of the most vulnerable people in America, and those who had the hardest time getting covered before, now have health insurance. They offer this as practical evidence of the law’s success.
But conservatives (not all conservatives, but many of them) don’t see that as a success at all. If the government is helping an immigrant who washes dishes for a living get health coverage, then to them that means means that government is redistributing tax money from deserving people to undeserving people. The two groups look at the same practical effect, and interpret it in opposite ways.
That isn’t to say that the ACA didn’t give benefits to everyone, because it did. Millions of middle-class and even upper-class people were hurt by the fact that insurance companies used to be able to deny you coverage if you had a pre-existing condition, but the ACA outlawed that. And if the payment reforms in the law bring down overall health spending, we all benefit. But the most visible and dramatic parts of the law relate to the tens of millions of Americans who used to be without health coverage but now have it.
This is why Republicans continue to call the ACA a “disaster” and a “catastrophe” despite the good it has done. Liberals hoped that once the law was implemented and its practical effects became clear, the law would become hugely popular. Instead, views of the law divide closely on ideology and partisanship, and that hasn’t changed and won’t change.
That’s because there’s a fundamental clash of values at work, which means that liberals and conservatives will always judge it according to different standards. Because the law did a large amount to bring coverage to those who couldn’t afford it (through both the expansion of Medicaid and subsidies), and because it included a raft of new regulations meant to solve a variety of problems within the health care system, conservatives will always oppose it, whether it succeeds on its own terms or not. To doctrinaire conservatives, a government regulation that accomplishes what it sets out to isn’t a success at all; it’s a moral failure by definition. That’s why liberals will never convince them to support the ACA by pointing to its practical successes.
That isn’t to say that conservatives don’t make practical arguments against the ACA, because they do. But they’re mostly window dressing placed atop their moral objections to government involvement in health care. So yes, they predicted that Obamacare would destroy the economy, and cost millions of jobs, and lead to fewer people with health coverage, and balloon health care spending, and make premiums skyrocket. When they turned out to be wrong about all these things, conservatives didn’t say, “Well gee, I guess this law was a pretty good idea after all.” Because the fundamental moral objection remains, whatever the practical impact.
You can see it in the decision to accept or reject the law’s expansion of Medicaid. The federal government offered states a huge pot of free money to provide coverage to their poor citizens, and though some conservative governors tried to argue that it would be too expensive, those arguments were laughably weak. As one independent analysis after another has shown — from groups like the Rand Corporation, not exactly a bunch of lefties — taking the expansion leads to healthier state finances and better economic growth, on top of helping your state’s constituents. But for many governors, insuring poor people isn’t a moral good at all; just the opposite, in fact. So they were even willing to incur economic damage in order to avoid it (and to give Barack Obama the finger, of course).
Where this all leaves us is that the ACA will never become something we agree on, no matter what it does or doesn’t do in the real world. But even that’s not the whole story, because there are political factors at work. Smart Republicans understand that with each passing year, the law becomes more and more entrenched and harder to unwind, no matter how much they hate it. It’s one thing to keep people from getting insurance, but it’s something quite different, and far more politically dangerous, to take away insurance people already have — and if they really repealed the law, that’s what they would be doing, not just to a few people but to 20 million or so.
That’s why Republicans have so much trouble coming up with their “repeal and replace” plan. It’s not because there aren’t conservative health care wonks who could give them an outline. It’s because any real repeal would be so spectacularly disruptive to the system that it would a political nightmare. Just today there’s an article in The Hill on the efforts of the Republican task force charged with producing the new repeal-and-replace legislation, under the title, “GOP group promises ObamaCare replacement plan — soon.” If you’ve been following this issue, you know that title is a joke. As the piece says:
Coming up with a plan to replace ObamaCare has been an aim for the Republican Party for so long that it’s become a laugh line even in conservative circles. Despite voting more than 50 times in the House to repeal the law, the GOP has not once voted on legislation to take its place.
But every couple of months, they say that they’ll be releasing their plan any day now.
If Republicans actually took the White House and held Congress, my guess is that they’d pass something they called “repeal and replace” but which would leave the ACA largely intact. Just as they propose to privatize Medicare but rush to tell seniors who love it that their own coverage wouldn’t be affected, it would be some kind of time-delayed change that would avoid kicking people who now have insurance off their coverage. And if Hillary Clinton gets elected in the fall, it’ll be another four or eight years before they could even try this. No matter what happens between now and then, conservatives won’t ever decide that the ACA has worked out well, whether it actually did what it was designed to do or not. As far as they’re concerned, the design itself was the problem. But they may decide, as they did with Medicare, that doing away with it isn’t worth the bother — at least not worth bothering to to try all that hard.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.